Reviewed by Mary McWay Seaman, Celtic Connection, October, 2007
Folks who grew up during the Great Depression will not easily forget this book, and some New Yorkers may even feel themselves walking through its mirrors. Others will revere it as an aching refresher on the era. NORTH RIVER, Pete Hamill”s new novel, conducts readers through 1934 Greenwich Village near the North River (as the locals called the Hudson), where for many folks, hoping for heat and hot water was wishing for the moon. Sick at heart in the winter of his life, Dr. James Finbar Delaney, family physician, shoulders a grueling workload to block his despair. An injury in France during World War I, where he saw fellow soldiers cut to ribbons, had long banished Delaney”s dream of becoming a surgeon. Investigations into the strange disappearance of his dissatisfied wife drag on, and the couple”s impetuous daughter, a teen-aged bride, has left the country with a revolutionary young husband embroiled in overseas political rebellions. Hamill”s rich historical acumen summons a dark decade between world wars; a decade marked by global pauperism and growing overseas tyrannies that pushed multitudes into revolution and many towards nihilism. Few writers can transport readers to New York”s blighted, Depression-era streets with as much subtle, sensual veracity as Hamill. Delaney”s home medical practice near the river, “where he had listened to so many confessions without any hope of granting absolution,” occupies his mornings, while afternoons are devoted to house calls on foot or bicycle within warrens of decrepit tenements (anyone remember house calls?). The dangers faced when treating gangland foes ” hazards of his profession ” are constructed with the authority of a precise, journalistic hand. The narrative is crisp, and everyday conversations hum with authenticity. Nostalgia drips from the pages like a misty dew, but manages to skirt sentimentality. Delaney”s patients are afflicted with ailments and hardships that gnaw at each other with a sorrowful edginess. Injuries and diseases, from random sicknesses and savage accidents to grievous wounds from brawling and gunshot wounds, arrive at his door. Gangsters and gun-runners, military veterans and ordinary folks are treated for illnesses that would only be seen in specialty settings today ” tuberculosis, malaria, ills from tobacco and alcoholism, and cancer. The doctor attends to common complaints ranging from boils to shingles, but most people just waited out the usual childhood diseases and common respiratory ailments. The shame of penury is as visceral as the fear of hospitals before the development of antibiotics. Delaney”s patients, like much of the population in the 1930s, view the institutions as dumping grounds for hopeless cases. Hamill”s tough, newspaperman”s no-nonsense eye is at work in beholding the solitary, multi-tasking Samaritan whose accounts payable are never healed by his accounts receivable. When the doctor”s three-year-old grandson is abruptly deposited on his doorstep, life changes utterly. His daughter abandons the toddler to begin a search of Europe for her runaway spouse. The young husband”s dreams of glory require dramas with showy responsibilities and a new woman; he refuses to be foiled by the drag of family life. Folks in this novel are one of two kinds. Members of the first group, no matter where they are, want to be somewhere else and are suspended in wishful transit mode. The second group consists of those up to their elbows with life”s daily digging and hauling. Delaney”s wife, daughter, son-in-law and a mob patient are in the first category. Blindsided by love for his grandson, the doctor hires Rose, a scrappy Sicilian immigrant with a shaky past who organizes the household and soothes both suffering souls. All of the historic, literary, artistic and religious symbolism inherent in her name is excruciatingly correct. Her persona, a steadying tonic for Delaney”s sorrows, also provides an intriguing peek into the structural class system of the period. Reverence for President Roosevelt is palpable among the masses. The discipline of poverty has had its enthusiasts through the centuries, but there are no romantic notions about the nobility of privation in this book. Poor folks with poor ways – bugs, dirt, debilities and rotten teeth ” are on their own in the years before Social Security, welfare, food stamps, free school lunches, subsidized childcare and after-school camps. Private charities and churches offer some relief. Hamill gets in a few swings at the Catholic Church, but his measured hits are piercing and effective, usually in anecdotal asides, as he lets facts speak for themselves. His impression of religion as an anachronistic, monolithic bureaucracy rife with tribal, ritualistic bonds bearing strange fruit is furthered through the drama of a sports celebrity”s funeral (attended by John McCormack, George M. Cohan and Will Rogers), and the manipulation of another death certificate to circumvent the Church”s denial of burials for suicides (an injunction since rescinded). This enchanting saga is buoyed by a vortex of multilayered subplots awash with unexpected twists. A probing look at organized crime in the city, propelled by years of Prohibition, teases out some ethical dilemmas. Deft explorations of the enemies doctors sometimes make when their patients die comprise sobering tales, and one interlude exposes the dangers of submitting wound reports to law enforcement. Threading his way in and out of snares in the face of fearsome threats, Dr. Delaney sports a touch of swagger ” a perennial Pete Hamill feature in some portraits of his afflicted, almost too-good-to-be-true protagonists. Hamill”s exuberant love for the city he knows so well spills over in remembrance of hard times and unsung heroism. His genius in evoking the gritty, cold fog of Depression-era desperation lies in depictions of bewildered, workaday folks battling for their daily bread without fuss, fanfare or any grasp whatsoever of grand gestures. Most arrestingly, NORTH RIVER delivers an old soldier from hopelessness by addressing an elemental, ancient force – the heart”s desire to nurture and protect progeny, mankind”s lone, earthly fragment of immortality.

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